CARSON CITY -- The state Division of Water Resources decided Tuesday to proceed with a test to pump massive amounts of groundwater out of wells at the Coyote Springs development, even though an independent study suggests the pumping could wipe out a federally protected species of fish.
Martin Mifflin, the hydrologist whose firm prepared the study for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, warned state officials during a meeting not to proceed with the pumping until they determined why 60 percent of the endangered Moapa dace died in 2007 and 2008. He also said the impact of the tests won't show up for months after the pumping begins.
The fish population dropped after the Coyote Springs development began pumping additional water to irrigate its golf course through its existing water rights. The residential development at Coyote Springs has been delayed because of the poor economy.
But Bob Williams, state supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, questioned the accuracy of Mifflin's study.
He noted that the dace population has shown a slight increase in the past two years and that hydrologists have been arguing for 10 years whether the pumping will jeopardize the federally protected fish.
He said the dace may have died because of restoration work done at the warm spring pools where the small fish live, about nine miles east of Coyote Springs.
"I am charged more than any other person in this room with protecting the Moapa dace," Williams said. "We want information. Let's go forward."
After the meeting, state engineer Jason King said he could order an immediate halt to pumping if studies show the dace population further declines.
"That's our hammer," added King, who said during the meeting that he did not want to be responsible for killing off the endangered fish population.
The Moapa dace is found only in the warm spring pools and streams at the headwaters of the Muddy River, between U.S. 93 and Interstate 15 north of Las Vegas.
The entire natural habitat of the finger-length fish is confined within the 117-acre Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the neighboring Warm Springs Natural Area, a 2,000-acre tract the Southern Nevada Water Authority acquired in September 2007.
A further drop in the fish population could have wider ramifications. At risk are water rights that the state engineer tentatively awarded the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Coyote Springs development and the Moapa Indians. More than half of that water is to be pumped into the Las Vegas Valley by the water authority for use by local residents and businesses.
Before they could pump water from Coyote Springs wells permanently, the affected parties were required by a 2002 agreement to carry out a two-year test to pump 8,050 acre-feet of water a year from Coyote Springs wells and determine how that affects the water tables and the fish population.
The test will begin in August or September, said Jeff Johnson, a division manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. His agency plans to pump 6,500 acre-feet of water (4,000 gallons a minute) from a well at Coyote Springs. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas homes for one year.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority does not need any additional water now because the economic downturn has reduced demand in the Las Vegas Valley , Johnson said.
Water taken from the well in Coyote Springs over the next two years will be pumped into the Muddy River, where a portion of it will flow downstream to Lake Mead.
The water can be used as a credit for Nevada in future years when it needs additional water, Johnson said.
The authority spent more than $21 million on a pipeline to carry the groundwater about 16 miles from Coyote Springs to the Muddy River.
Nevada is allowed to take 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water from Lake Mead each year. That federal allocation supplies the Las Vegas Valley with about 90 percent of its drinking water.
Mifflin said after the meeting that he was particularly disappointed with Williams' statements and his and others' unwillingness first to find a conclusive reason for the fish dying.
"This is the guy who is supposed to protect the dace and he is ignoring our evidence," Mifflin said. "Sure it is possible that the dace population died because of their improvements to the fish habitat. But until they know for sure, it is crazy to go forward."
The number of dace fell from 1,172 to 473 in 2007 and 2008. A count in February showed a population of 532.
Mifflin said his study found that decreased flows to the springs that feed the dace habitat would not show up until nine or 10 months after pumping begins. He contended that pumping at full levels could continue for a year and a half before the state engineer stops it under the 2002 agreement.
The Coyote Springs development anticipates it will pump about 1,400 acre-feet of water per year for the next two years under its existing water rights.
Carl Savely, a lawyer with the Coyote Springs development, said the proposed master-planned community does not need additional water at this time because the poor economy has hampered lot sales.
Bill Van Liew, a hydrologist with the National Park Service, was the only person of about 30 at the meeting who defended Mifflin. He said the hydrologist is correct in his assertion that the pumping will damage the Moapa dace population.
"I have been saying the same thing for the last 10 years," Van Liew said after the meeting.
Ultimately, though, he said, he must defer to Williams' view and go along with the additional pumping.
"We have had this battle for the last decade," Van Liew said. "I think the pumping definitely is going to affect the dace. What happens after that, who knows?"
Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report. Contact reporter Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.